Today's entry in the transatlantic religious fiction sweepstakes is Sarah Schoonmaker Baker's Truth and Its Triumph; Or, the Story of the Jewish Twins (1882), a relatively late novel by a prolific children's author from CT. Truth and Its Triumphs, despite cheerfully taking most conventions of the Jewish conversion novel on board, does spend far more time than usual elaborating the genre's literacy tropes.
The story itself, invested heavily in figures of Judaism as incompletion and lack, unfolds predictably enough. A good chunk of the novel takes place between two domestic spaces: the Jewish Myers home, owned by a traveling pedler and his wife Naomi, which doubles as a shop, and the Christian Fay home, owned by an impoverished widow. Jacob Myers is a nominal Jew, with the usual stereotypical interests in making money, but he loves his wife Naomi and his three children, Muppim, Huppim (the eponymous twins), and Ard. Of the twins, Muppim is the more "serious," although also somewhat cranky. His journey to Christianity begins when his best buddy, Charlie Fay, blinds himself while playing with the percussion caps thoughtlessly given to the twins by Mr. Thayer (who turns out to be the plot's local deus ex machina later on). Charlie's blinding--"[p]ieces of the percussion caps had entered his eyes" (20)--anticipates Muppim's sensations later on when he contemplates God during a deadly illness: "the words were fixed in Muppim's mind, like a nail driven home by a strong hand" (70). Charlie's transformative blindness, which implicitly invokes John 9:25, and Muppim's figurative crucifixion in the midst of his suffering both serve as child-sized imitations of Christ's passion; in general, the novel makes such pain the primary impetus for conversion. Charlie's full acceptance of his blindness models Christian fortitude for Muppim, Mr. Thayer, and even Charlie's mother, herself a committed Christian. Given that the narrator emphasizes that, once converted, Muppim is a "Christian Jew" (81), retaining his Jewish identity despite the change of religion, it is possible that Charlie may be a shout-out to the truly exasperating* Charley from Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Judah's Lion (1852), a novel equally invested in the proposition that converted Jews were still Jews. In any event, once Muppim finally admits to his parents that he has become a Christian, the usual disaster happens: he is rejected by both parents (convention 1), beaten by his father (convention 2), and then exiled from the family (convention 3). Although Jacob Myers had inadvertently (if, on the novel's terms, providentially) enabled his son's conversion by making him literate in English, he otherwise models the stiffnecked Jew, invested in ritual and material goods; his Dombey and Son-style punishment, in which he loses his mind after his entire business goes up in flames, is a none-too-subtle warning about the fate of Jews in a "Christian country" where the inhabitants "had an opportunity to know all of the religion of Jesus" (61). By contrast, Huppim, the other twin, eventually comes to embody a truly Christianized capitalist ethic, ultimately subsidizing Muppim's evangelical ministry to the Jews (126). Their father, a "memento of their Jewish days" (124), becomes a living monument to Judaism's necessary failure in a Christian era--indeed, his conversion hinted at but still incomplete at his final apperance, Jacob isn't even mentioned in the final chapter, which mentions everyone else's steadfast Christian beliefs.
As I said in the beginning, where this novel expands on conversion novel conventions is in its approach to literacy. The ability to read and properly interpret the Bible is, of course, at the center of every Protestant conversion narrative, but The Truth and Its Triumph plays multiple modes of reading against each other: the ability to read Hebrew; the ability to read English; Charlie's growing skill in reading raised letters. From reading it is one step to interpretation and reinterpretation--specifically, the Jews learning to read their own religion typologically, as emblematized in the two "Passover" chapters (the Jewish holiday and its fulfillment in the communion). Even the most impoverished Jews' fluency in Hebrew, along with their inseparability from the "Holy Book" (9), signifies the last remnant of continuity between the lost age of Jewish power and the present, diasporic age of Jewish oppression. For Christians like Charlie, the mere sound of Hebrew, apart from its meaning, carries spiritual weight: "There was something delightful to Charlie in the idea of hearing even a few words of that ancient language spoken by Moses and the Prophets" (29). Reading or speaking, the Jew brings the Biblical past into the present, testifying to a truth he only partly understands--what Stephen R. Haynes calls the "witness-people myth." But Charlie's Christian pleasure is enabled by literacy in English, which the novel figures as the entry into both full civic participation and full Christian belief. Jacob, a rather bad reader of the Tanakh, teaches the twins English on Sundays (42) to prepare them for careers in business, but in teaching them English, he inadvertently opens the way for Mr. Thayer's surreptitious gift of a Bible, "the best book printed in the English language, or any other" (64). Naomi--who, unconventionally for the Jewish conversion novel, is the center of the family's spiritual life rather than a nominal believer flattened by patriarchy--is fully aware of the danger to her children, for English is a vehicle for "bad books" (42). English poses the threat of apostasy and assimilation, even though the novel starkly isolates the Myers family from the other local Jews; Naomi's own insight fails to reveal that there is no Jewish "community" to exit from. (When Muppim becomes ill, there are no Jews to share the burden of his care.) Jacob's figurative blindness to the providential meaning of his choices stands in stark contrast to the blind Charlie's skill at reading God's plan, while Charlie's struggles in learning to read a different way mirror Muppim's slow and agonizing attempts to read the Tanakh in the light of the New Testament. And the narrative itself primes its youthful readers to perceive the providential connections that its Jewish characters so obstinately miss--as when Muppim overhears Charlie singing a Christian hymn through the door left open for the Prophet Elijah.
* Charley has a habit of addressing the Jewish protagonist as "Mr. Jew," which we are apparently supposed to find charming.